Acton Institute Powerblog

Un-Christian Retributiveness

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How’s this for an expression of un-Christian retributiveness?

If God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.

–Heinrich Heine, Gedanken und Überlegungen; quoted and translated in Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.

Read that quote within the context of these two related biblical texts, Genesis 4:23-24 and Matthew 18:21-23, and tell me what you think.

The justification for capital punishment isn’t that it is a necessary precondition for personal forgiveness.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Dan Bud

    Freud’s starting point to his world and life view is the lack of a higher authority in the universe, like the Christian God. From that perspective evil acts have to be settled before death, or they would not be settled at all. A Judeo-Christian worldview promotes the idea of after life, where all the evils would somehow be redeemed and transformed from sources of pain and suffering into forgotten dreams or purified memories that would not cause more pain, at least not in the way we experience the effects of evil at this end of life. Without the Judeo-Christian worldview I don’t see how forgiveness is possible, even when one’s enemy is hanged. This hanging may be the best thing that can happen to the evil person, functioning like a deliverance for one’s worst enemies.

  • I wonder if Freud gave enough context to know whether this was dead serious, or purely whimsical. I suspect it is somewhere on the spectrum between the two. It’s rather chilling if it is serious, however.

    Your point about capital punishment not being a necessary precondition for personal forgiveness surely holds in either case. If Heine was joking, it is even the foundation of the joke. God would, in his vision, have Abel swing from a tree to please Cain.

  • Dale Milne

    Lamech’s opinion is pre-Jesus, pre-Moses, even pre-Noah. He has virtually no covenant with requirements or even encouragements to forgive. The brutal pre-Noahic age was more cruel than even Moses’ simple eye-for-an-eye. With Lamech, it was seven-lives-for-one! Heine appears to be a Lamech, in this sense, that he is willing to see as many as seven men (and their families) suffer that one man (Heine) may have a coarse joy.

    The King wanting “to settle accounts” in Matthew 18:21-23 had his servant tortured and forced to pay back all he had owed. This was because the servant for his part had proved unwilling to forgive others. It sounds as though Heine is also living the role of this unforgiving servant (rather than that vindictive king); if so, his soul “hangs” in the balance. He may expect torture and ‘pay-back’.